TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed “tremendous concern” at the life sentence handed to a Canadian pastor in North Korea on Wednesday, saying consular officials would work to stand up for his rights.
Hyeon Soo Lim, who pastors the Light Korean Presbyterian Church west of Toronto, was sentenced to life in prison with hard labour by North Korea’s Supreme Court for what it called crimes against the state.
Trudeau noted that Canadian consular officials have not been allowed to see Lim since his detention began early this year apart from during the 90-minute trial that ended with his sentencing.
“We have tremendous concern about it,” he said. “The issues of North Korea’s governance and judicial system are well known. We certainly hope to be able to engage with this individual and stand up for his rights.”
Trudeau said consular officials would be pressing North Korean authorities for access to Lim.
“We need to be able to meet with and ensure that Canadians are being properly treated everywhere around the world, including in North Korea,” he said.
A spokeswoman with the federal department of Global Affairs said earlier that Canada was “dismayed” at what it called “the unduly harsh sentence” given to Lim, particularly given his age and fragile health.
Lim, who is in his 60s, had been in detention since February.
He entered and left the North Korean court in handcuffs on Wednesday, flanked by two public security officers in uniform. He kept his head bowed most of the time and answered questions in a subdued tone.
The crimes Lim was charged with included harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to overseas Koreans and helping U.S. and the South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens, along with aiding their programs to assist defectors from the North.
State prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Lim’s lawyer asked the court to take into account the fact that Lim is a fellow Korean and that he had frankly confessed to everything the prosecution had brought up.
Lim pleaded to be given a chance, and said if the court gave him one, he would not do anything bad again.
In July, Lim had appeared at a news conference organized by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang and admitted to plotting to overthrow the North Korean state, but other foreigners detained in North Korea and then released have said they were coerced into making similar statements and confessing guilt during their detention.
Lim’s relatives and colleagues have said he travelled to North Korea on Jan. 31 as part of a regular humanitarian mission to the country where he supports a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage.
They said Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997 and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.
Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for Lim’s family, said Wednesday’s developments were troubling.
“The family and the church are both concerned about the sentence that was passed,” she told The Canadian Press. “However we are also very appreciative of the Canadian government’s effort to continue in diplomacy.”
Pak added that the family was continuing to hope for a resolution in Lim’s case.
Lim started the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., nearly three decades ago, shortly after he immigrated from South Korea.
He grew the congregation from about a dozen people in 1986 to more than 3,000 members today, Pak said. He also runs a smaller church in downtown Toronto that caters to young people.
Tina Park, a PhD candidate who studies the history of Korean-Canadian relations at the University of Toronto, attended the downtown branch of Lim’s church for a time, and said his detention was a shock to many in the Korean Canadian community.
“His church is one of the main religious groups in the Korean community that has been actively involved in humanitarian missions to North Korea,” she said. “He is very well known…his purpose was always philanthropy.”
Park added that Lim’s case could set an important precedent on how Canada deals with North Korea.
“Until now we’ve been a lot more active in dealing with the South Korean situation than the north,” said Park. “This is a case that deserves an active Canadian engagement.”
North Korea has very strict rules against any missionary or religious activities that it sees as threatening the supremacy of its ruling regime. Merely leaving a Bible in a public place can lead to arrest and possibly severe punishment.
Both the Canadian and U.S. governments warn against travel to North Korea.